Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart created some of the sweetest sounds ever to fall on the human ear, but he's nevertheless the latest sacrifice on the altar of Islamic suppression of creative expression. "Idomeneo," scheduled for one of Berlin's famous opera houses this season, was called off because the security people determined there was an unacceptable risk of Islamist violence. The opera would exhibit the severed head of Mohammed.
Mind you, the severed head of Mohammed would not be alone. The staging requires King Idomeneo of Crete to wander aggressively around other severed heads, including those of Christ, Buddha and Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. But Christians, Buddhists or even Poseidonists understand that you can't kill someone just because they're selling bad or provocative taste. The message of the severed heads is presumably meant to say that "God is dead" and humanity stands alone without divine guidance.
"Idomeneo" was first produced in Germany in 1781 with only the head of Poseidon on stage. This contemporary production was performed during the last two opera seasons, updated to suggest a more edgy modern sensibility. (And to get a little free publicity, no doubt, once controversy erupted.) Christians and Muslims initially expressed anger, just as some Jewish groups always protest productions of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," with its offensive depiction of a Jewish money lender, but not until this season did the Germans think it necessary to cancel the opera. Beheadings on stage might be suggestive and inspirational to certain opera-goers.
The controversy is not about aesthetics. It's about blackmail, another instance of Western weakness to stand up to Islamist bullies. German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble spoke up for angry artists, politicians and opera lovers to call cowardice by its rightful name. "This is crazy," he told reporters last week in Washington. "This is unacceptable." Chancellor Angela Merkel called it dangerous "self-censorship." But the leader of Germany's Islamic council approved the cancellation.
We all practice self-censorship, of course. The stagers of "Idomeneo" in the "modern" form are not equal-opportunity offenders. This season it's the fashion to shock religious believers. But imagine the paintings and sculptures that would have to come down if every offended group threatened mayhem and death over what they don't like. Consider all the plays and ballets scuttled to avoid hurt feelings. Dare Othello, a black man, strangle the gentle Desdemona without calling up a stereotype? Dare the voluptuous Salome joyously receive the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter? Dare a producer depict David stealing Bathsheba and sending her husband to be killed in battle, thus upsetting religious Jews?
Art at its best (and sometimes its worst) is larger than life and creates its own rules to provoke us into thinking about right and wrong. The cancellation of Mozart's opera is another illustration of the importance of Pope Benedict XVI's call for a debate on faith and reason, to see how violence in God's name is a threat to us all. Thoughtful people, whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic or even atheist, can disagree on where they locate truth, but irrational violence on behalf of any religion or ideology must be condemned. This is the violence that the world confronts among the Islamic fascists today. The modern fascist threat is so real in the popular mind that jihadists didn't even have to make "official" threats; the Germans were more than ready to cancel Mozart's opera.
George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think-tank that looks closely at how ethical issues impinge on public policy, gets to the crux of the pope's message. "If adherents of certain currents of thought in contemporary Islam," he says, "insist that the suicide bombing of innocents is an act pleasing to God, then they must be told that they are mistaken: about God, about God's purposes and about the nature of moral obligation."
Islamic violence against Jews is widely thought to be provoked first by modern politics in the Middle East. Not so. Historians trace its origins to Mohammed's 7th-century attack on the Jews of Medina, whom he massacred when they rejected his message. He set upon them, even as he adopted certain of their practices, because they would not accept Allah as God.
We know that followers of Islam, like certain Christians in the past, used violence to compel converts, but these Christians of the Roman Catholic Church have repented in the name of their faith and condemned such violence. Can reformers of Islam do that as well? At the moment, they have fallen as silent as the chorus of a Mozart opera.